Prune With the Right Tools

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Make your life easier, simpler (and safer) by trimming plants with the right tools. Pruning cultivated plants helps keep them healthy, attractive, and full of flowers and fruit. Most of your regular garden pruning jobs can be tackled with a good pair of hand pruning shears, quality loppers, a limb saw, a bow saw and a pole pruning saw.

You will want to make sure that the pruning tools you use are quality, stainless or carbon steel and they are properly sharpened for a clean, safe cut. When buying good quality pruners, look for those that can be taken apart for sharpening without special tools, and that you can purchase new blades for them instead of a buying whole new tool. Using a blunt blade can not only leave a plant with a ragged wound that is an open door to infection, possibly leading to plant dieback and but leave you feeling fatigued as well from the extra effort.

My most frequently used pruning tool is the hand shear or “pruning shear”. The hand shear is used to cut stems up to about ½ inch across, about the diameter of a larger sized pencil. They’re also the tool to use for deadheading and cutting back the soft shoots on perennials, as well as snipping blooms for cut flower arrangements. The two most common types are the bypass pruner and the anvil pruner. The blade end of the by bypass pruner is constructed like a pair of scissors with two blades that slide past each other in a nice, tight fit without gaping between the blades. The blade end of the Anvil type is shaped so that one blade cuts down onto a flattened base. Because this action tends to crush the end of the stem that is cut, I reserve the anvil pruner for cleaning up already dead stems, not cutting into live plant tissue.

A pair of long-handled pruners, or loppers is useful for removing woody stems ½ – 1 in thick, where hand pruners might be damaged, and for thinner branches that are hard to reach. The longer handle will give you leverage for a clean cut through thicker stems, and save wear and tear on your hand grip. Keep in mind that size, weight and balance matter here because you may have to hold them with your arms fully stretched out or above your head.

A tree pruning pole saw is handy for cutting branches up to 1inch thick that would be otherwise out of reach. Often the business end of a tree pole saw has a sawblade on one side and a ratcheting curved blade on the other that is hooked over the branch to be cut. The blade is operated by either a lever or a cord. The pole is usually about 6-10 feet long. Some models are telescoped for easier storage.

If the branches that need to be removed are thicker than an inch, use a pruning limb saw. It’s actually faster and safer than hand shears or loppers, and more economical than replacing the gaped blades that result from forcing the smaller tools to cut more mass than they can handle. Often times you will find that these larger branches are in tight confined spaces that make cutting with a regular saw difficult at best. Using a pruning saw, either folding or rigid, with a shorter blade makes quick work of the larger branches that need to come out. The curved blade models cut with a downward pull action that is easier to follow a line and apply pressure with than push stroke of the straight blades.

A bow saw operates very similarly to the straight bladed pruning saw and can actually be faster than cutting thick branches with power chain saw. It’s lighter and easier to use, but like a chain saw it is too large to operate in a confined area.

Tips to remember:

  • All pruning saws should have hardpoint, heat-treated teeth, which are harder and stay sharper longer than ordinary teeth. Since you’ll be cutting across the grain of the wood, look for models with blades that have crosscut teeth rather than the alternating, flat left/right rip saw teeth. The teeth on a crosscut saw angle back and have a beveled edge.
  • Make sure you have a secure hand grip surface on whichever tool you select.
  • When making a saw cut, score a groove in the branch and then insert the saw blade to lessen the chance of slipping when you use it.
  • Cutting tools can spread disease if not properly cleaned and disinfected. Rubbing alcohol is somewhat effective in disease prevention. While chlorine bleach is more effective against disease, it may also result in more pitting and discoloration of the cutting blades. A disinfectant type cleaner (original phenol-based product) at full strength is not as destructive to pruner blades and is a good disinfectant.
  • Clean the blades of your tools after each use with an oily rag or steel wool to remove any sap that has dried on, then lightly oil them. Good steel tools will last a lifetime if you take care of them!

For more information on general pruning techniques and pruning specific plants, take a look at the following publications:



Minda Daughtry is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.